By Brian Boyce
TERRE HAUTE — A citizen’s right to vote might come straight from the Constitution, but the redistricting process can be as wiggly as a salamander’s tail.
The Vigo County Library’s meeting room was about half full Wednesday evening for an informational forum concerning the state and national legislative redistricting process. And as Indiana State University political science professor Carl Klarner explained, that process of carving states into districts based on population can shift elections for or against the parties involved.
Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause/Indiana, said after the presentation that the state legislature is too self-interested to be allowed to create these districts and needs an independent agency to handle the process.
“We believe it’s time to hold their feet to the fire, because the same party who is currently in power said they wanted an independent commission to handle redistricting last year,” she said of Republicans.
But as it stands, the legislature chooses how representative districts are created every 10 years, based on census data. This legislature received population data this month toward those ends, Klarner said.
And while equal numbers of people must be represented in each district with considerations given to racial groups based on the Voting Rights Act, the geographic boundaries of such areas can wiggle about wildly. Klarner showed maps depicting the vertical wavering of U.S. Congressional Districts 8 and 4 inside Indiana, and he pointed out that in some cases, the towns contained in these districts are as far as 218 miles apart.
The term “gerrymander,” he explained, was coined in 1812 when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry redistricted his state so as to block Federalist candidates. The map he produced was referred to as a “gerrymander,” which was a cross between Gerry and a salamander, Klarner said.
If the goal of gerrymandering is to eliminate competition faced by incumbents, it seems to be working.
Between 1992 and 2010, 38.8 percent of Indiana state senate elections were missing one major party candidate, with 37.2 percent of house elections equally uncontested. During the same period, 74.8 percent of state senate and 71.9 percent of house races were won by a margin of 20 percent or more, he added.
Panel member Vern Tincher, who retired from his seat in the house representing Indiana’s 46th district, recounted his experiences dating back to his first win there in 1982. During the 1960s, the career Democrat explained, Indiana’s districts were set in such a manner as to keep power in the hands of rural areas. This changed around 1965 with cities taking the stronger position which they maintain today.
In 1991, his district went from covering seven counties to four, but with that change came a sense of compactness he and others described as positive. Those discussions featured a walkout staged by Republican legislators protesting what they thought were unfair tactics by the Democrats, he added. Still, years of redistricting have produced a field in which each election season contains only five to 10 competitive races at the onset, those numbers halved within two months of the election, he said.
Klarner pointed out that in addition to a lack of competition, poor redistricting can increase polarization as heavily Republican areas will produce extremely conservative candidates while Democratic strongholds will send extreme liberals to office. Those caught in the middle might very well wonder whether their voice will be heard amid the clamor.
And money does matter, all involved agreed.
“There’s a lot of literature on how well congressional districts correspond with media outlets,” Klarner said, with Tincher pointing out that the Republican legislative sweep was greatly aided by political action committee money dispatched via Gov. Mitch Daniels.
Panel member Bernard Riders, executive director of the Vigo County Taxpayers Association, posed the question of whether or not a representative has an obligation to represent his district once in office given the nature of such partisan wrangling.
A public meeting with members of the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission will be hosted at the library March 29 between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. addressing the topic of redistricting.
Meanwhile, Klarner said concerned citizens can contact their legislators and ask for more public access to the redistricting process.
Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or email@example.com.